(Reuters) – Lee Jeong-eun became the ninth South Korean to win the U.S. Women’s Open on Sunday, holding her nerve while her rivals faltered in South Carolina to claim the first $1 million winner’s prize in women’s golf.
Lee, who has a ‘6’ in her surname to differentiate herself from five other players with the same name on the Korean Tour, had two late bogeys but a one-under-par 70 was enough to clinch the title at the demanding Country Club of Charleston course.
Her six-under 278 total was two shots better than compatriot and 2011 champion Ryu So-yeon (70) and Americans Angel Yin (68) and Lexi Thompson (73).
Overnight leaders Yu Liu of China and France’s Celine Boutier faded with matching 75’s to finish three strokes behind the winner.
Tour rookie Lee was a class apart in a tense final round, her compact swing, deft short game and composed demeanour keeping her out of trouble as her rivals floundered.
“I didn’t expect to win the tournament this fast,” she said via an interpreter, apologising first for not speaking English and promising to do so next time she won.
“I think this is very lucky that I won this major championship.”
It marks the 10th time a South Korean has won the event in just over 20 years. Pak Se-ri started the run in 1998 and inspired a whole generation to follow in her footsteps. Olympic champion Park In-bee has won the event twice, in 2008 and 2013.
Lee, who started the day two strokes off the lead, was on a nearby practice putting green when her victory was confirmed and the 23-year-old burst into tears before being doused in champagne.
“I was nervous starting 16, 17 and 18, and I knew that if I make all pars on those holes, I’m going to win,” she said.
While she only made par on 17, sandwiched between two bogeys, it was enough to bring her the victory.
Lee’s main danger down the stretch was joint overnight leader Boutier, who lipped out on a four-foot birdie at the 16th that would have tied it up.
A birdie at the last would have forced a playoff but instead she finished with a double-bogey and slipped back into a tie for fifth on three-under.
“I feel pretty bad right now,” said Boutier, who clinched her first LPGA Tour victory at the Vic Open in Australia earlier this year.
While the experience of that victory had helped her in the early part of this tournament, she said nerves got the better of her on Sunday.
“It kind of helped me throughout the first three rounds but then today, I was pretty nervous all day, even in the morning when I wasn’t even on the course,” she said.
“I mean, obviously, majors is a different situation, but it’s always good to be in this position, I guess, for the future.”
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina, editing by Ian Ransom/Peter Rutherford)